Words you learn at the vicarage
I share something in common with Jane Austen, Tori Amos, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Vincent van Gogh: I am the child of a clergyman. Growing up in a Church of England vicarage has given me insights to faith, diplomacy, and how best to run a coffee morning – but it’s also a window into a very particular lexicon.
Rectory / vicarage
I’ve lived in a vicarage and I’ve lived in a rectory: what, you might ask, is the difference? In today’s Anglican Church, to all intents and purposes, there isn’t really any practical distinction. My father’s job didn’t fundamentally change when he became a rector. So, why the two terms? It goes back to a bygone distinction in payments: a rector (from the Latin rector, from the verb regere, ‘to rule’) collected his income from the individual, autonomous church while a vicar was employed by another institution (such as a monasteries) and got his income there.
So, where does the word vicar come from? I didn’t realize this for years, but it does share a root with vicarious (‘experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person’ or ‘acting or done for another’) precisely because the vicar was acting in the stead of another.
Meanwhile, priest is based on ecclesiastical Latin presbyter, meaning ‘elder’ (that is, an official in the church). Thus priest and Presbyterianism (a form of Protestant Church government in which the Church is administered locally by the minister with a group of elected elders of equal rank) share a common root.
A trainee priest is known as a curate, which comes from the Latin cūra ‘care’. Incidentally, curate has a homonym (usually pronounced with an emphasis on the second syllable) which means ‘select, organize, and look after the items in a collection or exhibition’, but this is actually a latter-day back-formation. Curator dates as far back as the early 14th century, while the corresponding verb curate first appears in the 1930s, according to current OED research.
The word clergy itself shares a Latin root with cleric: clericus, meaning ‘clergyman’. This ultimately comes from the Greek klērikos ‘belonging to the Christian clergy’, from klēros ‘lot’ (as seen in Acts 1:26 – ‘Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles’).
Man of the cloth
This term, used to designate a clergyperson, sounds rather mysterious – but originally could refer to anybody wearing the uniform of their profession. Similar early examples have been found relating to servants, soldiers, and chimney sweeps – but by the 17th century, cloth was used particularly of a priest’s robes, and shortly afterwards the cloth was used metonymically for the clerical profession.
Child of the manse
Very occasionally I would be called a child of the manse; that is, I lived at the manse. Although I never lived further north than Merseyside, manse (‘a house provided for a minister of certain Christian Churches’; that is, a vicarage), it is used particularly in relation to the Scottish Presbyterian Church. In North American informal English, though, manse can be used more widely of anybody’s house – which is precisely what manus meant in medieval Latin, from manere ‘remain’.
A parish, in the Christian church, is ‘a small administrative district typically having its own church’ – and also, in rural areas of Britain, the smallest unit of local government. For our American cousins, it turns out Louisiana has parishes as well, corresponding to counties in other US states. The word parish comes from the Greek paroikia, meaning ‘sojourning; staying somewhere temporarily’, based on para- ‘beside, subsidiary’ + oikos ‘dwelling’. This was originally used with reference to the Jewish people in a foreign land: see, for instance, 1 Peter 1:17: ‘And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear’.